New Territory: Landscape Photography Today, the Denver Art Museum’s major group exhibit dedicated to contemporary evocations of the natural environment, has a somewhat misleading title. While there are photos in the show, New Territory also includes photo-based work, in which photography is merely a component, as well as pieces only vaguely associated with photography. Eric Paddock, the DAM’s curator of photography, who put the show together, tells me that he doesn’t make distinctions between photos versus photo-based techniques (or beyond), since artists today are moving freely between mediums, erasing boundaries. So if the second part of the title is wide of the mark, the first part, New Territory, is absolutely on it.
Paddock has been thinking about this show for several years and looked at the work of hundreds of artists before he selected the forty or so who made the final cut. New Territory does not focus on artists who depict familiar Western landscapes, as you might expect, but instead includes an international roster of participants, only a few of them genuinely famous, who capture scenes from around the world. Most of the works represent varied musings on neo-pictorialism, with the photos taking a page from painting in different ways, but typically by softening the forms. But there’s also a neo-new topographic interlude, and conceptual photos that resemble abstractions are displayed throughout. Regardless of the stylistic signature of a particular piece, Paddock is interested in unusual techniques; since everyone has a cell phone, pretty much everyone is now a photographer, he notes, and he wanted to include work clearly outside that current craze.
Unusual methods and the tilt toward neo-pictorialism are evident from the start. Clifford Ross’s gigantic triptych “Wood Wave XLIX” hangs facing the entrance to the Anschutz Gallery on the Hamilton’s second floor; it depicts a storm-driven ocean wave that’s splayed across three vertical panels covered in maple veneers. The grain of the maple shows through the image, pushing it out of focus. Ross developed special equipment to print these images digitally onto the wood, and the result is absolutely majestic. Around the corner, a similar painterliness is seen in the Abelardo Morell photos of national parks. To create these, Morell constructed a dome-like camera obscura surmounted by a prism, so that not only is the surrounding view brought in to the image, but so is the reflection of the ground on which the camera was erected. The photos record the famous views, but they’ve been pocked by the gravel on the ground, so they look sort of impressionistic.
The pictorialism on display in this show is superficially old-fashioned, but since the style has been propelled in recent years by the widespread acceptance of digital image manipulations, it’s also one of the latest trends. Maybe it should be called post-pictorialism? No matter what it’s called, there’s an undeniable poetic quality to much of the imagery here. Sally Mann’s photos of trees are elegant yet somber, and an unexpected contribution. A trio of photos by Andrew Beckham that depict altered views within one square mile of Bear Creek Canyon are luxuriously dense, with pictorial elements filling the frames from edge to edge. The enormous imaginary views of clouds by Sami Al Karim have invisible political subtexts reflecting on the time he spent in an Iraqi jail; their transcendental qualities are visually enrapturing. So is the image of clouds by Santeri Tuori.
Though far outnumbered by pictorial-related material, there’s a good showing of photos that can be linked back to the new topographic, though most of these have a conceptual twist. Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman’s photos of mundane locations, for example: The artists use Geolocator to find the origin of a Twitter post, photograph the place, then insert the text of the tweet below its matching image. Gregory Crewdson’s “Untitled (Brief Encounter)” looks like a postcard-worthy small-town winter scene, but it’s been completely staged by the artist, who had the street blocked off, hired models and rented old cars to completely control a picture that seems completely candid. Also riffing on the new topographic are Valérie Anex’s empty house, Robert Voit’s cell-phone tower disguised as a cactus, and Richard Misrach’s chillingly refined shot of a sample of Trump’s border wall that resembles a minimalist sculpture.
Most notable among the conceptual abstractions is the Matthew Brandt installation, comprising 24 photos that started out as landscapes but became blotchy or patterned after he rolled them up and buried them; they line the angled walls of a small gallery, surrounding the viewer. Penelope Umbrico’s works violate classic, appropriated photos of scenery with bars of colors from light leaks and apps that are so vivid, they turn the original images into grounds for the abstractions. Shimpei Takeda creates white-on-black all-over abstracts by sprinkling soil turned radioactive by the Fukushima disaster onto film, so that radioactivity, rather than light, exposes it. As much conceptual as they are abstract are Gary Emrich’s three photos of the mountains as seen on bottled-water packaging. The uneven margins of the found imagery that floats at the center of each lends these pieces a graphic, poster-like character. They’re strikingly different from anything else in the show.
There’s only one knock I could give this show: It has too little local content, with Beckham, Al Karim and Emrich the only Colorado artists, and I don’t understand why there aren’t more. Where’s Kevin O’Connell? David Sharpe? How about Edie Winograde or Patti Hallock? Evan Anderman? Oddly enough, no one knows their work better than Paddock. Since some of the artists in the show are represented by two or even three separate bodies of work, it would have been easy to make space for more Colorado artists without cutting anyone. And more Colorado content would have helped New Territory resonate more with the state’s photo scene.
Still, the show is spectacular as it stands, with Paddock’s relentlessly stunning selections revealing that he’s a true connoisseur with an unerring eye for beauty.
New Territory: Landscape Photography Today, through September 16, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-913-0131, denverartmuseum.org.
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